For many Americans, blended ancestry is an integral part of their identity. The mosaic of hyphenated heritages preserves cultural connections beyond the United States, lineages that build pride and a sense of belonging. But for Americans descended from enslaved Africans, the roots of their ancestry are often a mystery. Family trees go dark after five or six generations, a reminder that 150 years ago, black people weren’t considered people.
Genealogists refer to this as “the brick wall,” an obstruction in African American lineage that dates to 1870 when the federal Census began recording African descendants — 250 years after they were first hauled in chains to what would become the United States.
Before then, their lives existed on paper only as another person’s property. To penetrate the brick wall, black Americans frequently must rely on the names of their ancestors’ owners.
“You can find them through [their owners’] tax records, estate records, slave schedules and wills,” said Mary Elliott, the “Slavery and Freedom” curator for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Even after abolition, the black experience has fallen victim to campaigns that obscure the darkest parts of the American story, diminishing African Americans’ connections to their pasts and warping the collective memory of the nation’s history.
But in recent years, black Americans have pursued new efforts to uncover their stories. From exploring sunken vessels of the Middle Passage to reconstructing museum exhibits that chronicle slavery, African Americans are breaking down the barriers that separate them from their ancestors and reconnecting with a lineage once lost.
AMERICA’S LAST KNOWN SLAVE SHIP
Unlike most descendants of enslaved people, the residents of Africatown — a predominantly black community in Mobile, Ala. — know their ancestors’ stories.
They were carried from the West African nation of Benin in an illegal smuggling expedition financed by wealthy American businessman Timothy Meaher in 1860, decades after the transatlantic slave trade was abolished. The schooner that carried the enslaved Africans, called the Clotilda, is considered America’s last known slave ship.
As an artifact of American history, the Clotilda was lost for generations. The captain had set fire to the vessel to avoid detection, causing it to sink into the Mobile River. The shackled Africans released onshore became the founders of Africatown.
For generations, the lost ship left a hole in the story of the historical community. But the Clotilda’s discovery in August revealed the enslavers’ actions and highlighted the perseverance of the people onboard, giving their descendants a sense of validation and clarity that few descendants of slaves in America have experienced.
DIVING WITH A PURPOSE
Despite incredible strides, genealogical research falls short in connecting American descendants of slavery with the African communities from which their ancestors were taken.
European colonizers transported an estimated 12.5 million Africans across the Atlantic Ocean between 1525 and 1866, according to the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Enslaved Africans were stripped of identities and shipped as though they were textiles, wheat or other cargo.
“It was a business,” said Elliott of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “You won’t see many names documented, but you’ll see numbers. You’ll see gender. You’ll see age.”
As the international slave trade was outlawed in the early 19th century, many slave ships were repurposed for piracy, leaving little evidence of their former lives as vessels for human cargo. Of the more than 10,000 slave ships that made voyages during the transatlantic slave trade, only five have been identified worldwide. Archaeologists and scholars suspect thousands more dot coastlines beneath the surface.
Among those searching for the vessels of the Middle Passage is a group of teenagers working with Diving With a Purpose, an international organization dedicated to preserving the heritage of the African diaspora lost to the oceans’ depths. Their quest is focused on the Guerrero, an illegal slave ship that crashed along the coral reef off the coast of Florida in 1827.
The teens, many of them black, say the project has helped them connect with a history that is limited in textbooks.
“It makes me feel more connected to my past ancestors than what any history class has ever taught me,” said 18-year-old diver Michaela Strong.
THE GENETICS OF RACE
Scientific advances in human genetics have largely prioritized the biology of people with European ancestry. The endeavor reached a low point with the rise of the eugenics movement, leading to many scientific and statistical methods that continue to be used today. In modern classrooms, the work of eugenicists is often divorced from its origins and motivations, presented as morally neutral. Many scholars argue that eugenicists’ efforts to prove what they already believed — that humans can be bred into a superior race — have hindered understanding of the diversity of the human genome.
These concerns were pivotal in 1991, when more than 15,000 intact human remains were discovered in Lower Manhattan during excavation for a federal office building. Geneticists at Howard University realized that traditional research methods were falling short in identifying remains in the African burial ground, which dated to the 17th and 18th centuries, when African descendants were still enslaved in New York City.
Sequencing the human genome has offered new opportunities to bridge the Middle Passage with DNA. By sequencing genetic traits and overlaying them with ecological environments where they are most prevalent, geneticists have tried to pinpoint the geographic origins of people unfamiliar with their ancestry.
Today, genetic banks are being built throughout Africa to correct course, but work remains in the effort to pinpoint the origins of black Americans.
THE LOST CAUSE
One of the most successful propaganda campaigns in American history was developed to obscure the role of slavery in the Civil War. The Lost Cause narrative, perpetuated by groups sympathetic to the Confederate effort, asserted the war was fought over states’ rights and downplayed slavery as the defining “right” in dispute.
The Lost Cause narrative was fueled by popular films and strengthened by Confederate monuments erected across the country. It influenced depictions of slavery in school textbooks, mollifying the brutality of plantation culture and characterizing enslaved Africans as loyal to white Southern families.
Efforts to unravel the influence of the Lost Cause have proliferated in recent years, including in the former Confederate capital of Richmond. In 2013, the Museum of the Confederacy — an institution created as a shrine to the Lost Cause — merged with the American Civil War Museum and reframed the narrative around the Confederate artifacts on display. The reshaped exhibits clarified the role slavery played in America’s development, the war’s outbreak and the racial tensions that followed.
Christy Coleman, former chief executive of the American Civil War Museum, says Americans carry around the legacies of slavery every day.
“The only way that you really can come to some form of conciliatory behavior is when everybody finally understands it,” Coleman said.
Page design by Nina Wescott. Graphics by Brian Monroe. Video producing by Nicole Ellis and Ross Godwin.